Denis Kazan­sky returns with his author’s col­umn “Big Den” to talk about the Aston Vil­la phe­nom­e­non and its coach, who is writ­ing his own his­to­ry.

Unai Emery dreamed of being in a fairy tale. It didn’t work out to become a hero of the Russ­ian folk team; he didn’t stay in French folk­lore. Only in Spain did he come close to this. With mod­est Sevil­la and Vil­lar­real, Unai won four Euro­pean tro­phies. For some, it’s enough to sit down at a desk and think about an auto­bi­og­ra­phy. But the Basque need­ed some­thing spe­cial. Don’t write a fairy tale, but be its hero. Make it so that it is set as an exam­ple for all of foot­ball, and gen­er­a­tions cre­ate leg­ends: “This is the club that Unai built!”

This is what they once said about Sir Alex Fer­gu­son and Arsene Wenger.





Emery is prepar­ing for fame on a grand scale.

Two years ago he was called to Birm­ing­ham to save the unfor­tu­nate Aston Vil­la. Chi­nese own­er Tony Xia’s exper­i­men­tal finan­cial tricks and Steven Ger­rard’s coach­ing fail­ures have pushed the team into the rel­e­ga­tion zone.

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Emery was bored at Vil­lar­real then. An amaz­ing trip to the semi-finals of the Cham­pi­ons League in 2022 seemed to be the ceil­ing for a mod­est team, La Liga can­not be won, a new chal­lenge is need­ed.

The call from Birm­ing­ham was on time. He picked up the phone.

In the first game under his super­vi­sion, Vil­la defeat­ed Man­ches­ter Unit­ed 3:1, and con­struc­tion began. This facil­i­ty is financed by the Amer­i­can Wes Edens and the Egypt­ian Nassef Sawiris. “Vil­la” is their great joint work. The own­ers of the club have been in the sports busi­ness for a long time, help­ing finan­cial­ly with NBA and NHL teams.

Emery’s task was set with­out illu­sions — to lift the team up the table. And then we’ll “talk.”

Unai tired his play­ers with hours of the­o­ry and train­ing. He edit­ed the video him­self, lead­ing the play­ers by the hand across the field, plac­ing them in the angle he need­ed.

His teams always knew what to do with and with­out the ball. They knew how to behave in tran­si­tion­al phas­es. Only a strong the­o­ry con­tributes to suc­cess­ful prac­tice — this is what he always taught. He also taught the Birm­ing­ham peo­ple.

Vil­la fin­ished in sev­enth place in the cham­pi­onship and earned the right to play in Europe, in the Con­fer­ence League.

It was a stun­ning suc­cess in the eyes of oth­ers.

But Emery needs more.

Unai Emery.
Pho­to by Glob­al Look Press

The own­ers believed in his ambi­tions and allowed him to assem­ble his own large Span­ish team.

Monchi is respon­si­ble for foot­ball oper­a­tions in Birm­ing­ham. The man who, togeth­er with Emery, once made Sevil­la a suc­cess­ful Euro­pean club. Unai’s per­son­al assis­tant Dami­an Vida­gani now mon­i­tors all the details of the life of the main team and the struc­ture of the entire club. This is the tri­an­gu­lar foun­da­tion of pow­er.

“The dif­fer­ence between fail­ure and suc­cess is just time,” says Vida­gani. Togeth­er with Monchi, they guar­an­tee time by tak­ing all crit­i­cism and pres­sure upon them­selves. The Basque only needs to cre­ate on the foot­ball field.

After a shock 1–5 defeat to New­cas­tle in the first game of the cham­pi­onship, Sir Alex Fer­gu­son said: “I can’t believe the score­line. Aston Vil­la played fan­tas­ti­cal­ly and con­ced­ed bad goals. You can take out the oppo­nent but not score — that’s what hap­pened to Vil­la.

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Emery hard­ly need­ed a lawyer, but such a thing could not be refused. The words of the great coach con­vinced Emery of the ade­qua­cy of his meth­ods. By the end of cal­en­dar 2023, Aston Vil­la had lost only three times, hav­ing defeat­ed almost the entire top team — City (1:0), Arse­nal (1:0), Tot­ten­ham (2:1). The defeat to Liv­er­pool at Anfield (0:3) stands out from this line. How­ev­er, the game at Vil­la Park is still ahead.

Emery is exper­i­ment­ing with his two-num­ber for­ma­tion and is enrich­ing the role of strik­er Ollie Watkins. Both proven and young play­ers are reach­ing a new lev­el. He does not divide the team into play­ing and assist­ing per­son­nel. Every­one knows their role and their val­ue for the process and result.

Ollie Watkins.
Pho­to by Glob­al Look Press

Vil­la are cur­rent­ly in the semi-finals of the Con­fer­ence League. The chances of reach­ing the final are the­o­ret­i­cal. Emery lost to Olympia­cos at home 2:4.

But the focus is now com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. Aston Vil­la have sim­ply excel­lent chances to be in the top four, which means play­ing in the Cham­pi­ons League. There are two and a half rounds until the end of the tour­na­ment, the gap from Tot­ten­ham, which is in fifth place, is four points lost.

The main tour­na­ment in all of Europe means a lot of mon­ey. There is some­thing and some­one to spend it on. The appetite has clear­ly increased, the com­po­si­tion requires strength­en­ing and com­paction. But much more impor­tant is the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be in the tour­na­ment, which the Birm­ing­ham peo­ple from the mod­est Aston area won more than 40 years ago.

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Then it was the Euro­pean Cup. In the final in Rot­ter­dam, Vil­la defeat­ed Bay­ern 1–0 with Rum­menigge, Bre­it­ner and Augen­thaler. Hav­ing also cap­tured the Euro­pean Super Cup. Then this tro­phy was played in Jan­u­ary in two match­es. Now it sounds cos­mi­cal­ly strange (as in the sit­u­a­tion with Bay­ern), but Aston Vil­la beat Barcelona 3:1.

Emery has no goal of bring­ing back those times. He needs to do some­thing new.

Already dur­ing this sea­son, Emery extend­ed his con­tract with the club until 2027. Just a year and a half of work con­vinced the own­ers that the Basque was the right coach who could build a suc­cess­ful club. Here and now. For tomor­row and for a long time to come. As it once hap­pened with the French­man at Arse­nal and the Scots­man at Man­ches­ter Unit­ed.

There­fore, he refused to Bay­ern. There Unai would be anoth­er hired coach for the his­to­ry of the great club.

In Birm­ing­ham he has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to become the hero of the plot of his fairy tale. This is much more inter­est­ing.